Tips for Learning Tools for Librarians

6 minute read

Sometimes librarians ask me how they should start learning all the tools. First, I give them a long, irritating lecture about how resistant I am to the notion of learning tools. Because the nature of tools is that they are useful FOR something, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about the tools in the absence of their uses. Don’t learn a tool. Learn how to do something you want to do, and you will naturally learn to use some tools. It might turn out that the tool you’re using is perfect for your use, and terrible for another one, but tools aren’t useful to learn in the absence of goals that make use of them. But I know that’s an obnoxious answer, and I actually do have some approaches that worked for me (and others) for getting feet wet in the world of digital scholarship activities. One approach is to do an assignment from a professor who teaches Digital Humanities. Check out Miriam Posner’s DH101 tutorials list for a great and manageable list to start with.

But practicing librarians are not required to get through all the material in a semester, and so I recommend a different method in addition or instead. It’s basically to get or make a play collection that you use across the tools you think you might learn. This method also works great when you’re collaborating on it with a student worker. Assigning each step to a student will ensure that you understand it, and why it’s helpful. It may seem like getting a student to learn it instead of you will be a waste, but in my experience, the goal is to get a student to learn it with you. It’s more work for you the first time, but it helps you grow everyone’s skills. They’ll struggle and tell you all of the ways it was hard, they’ll gain experience with the tools and approaches, and you’ll gain experience talking about these things. But if you don’t have a student, just do it yourself, or with other colleagues.

Many of the digital scholarship projects that emerge involve digitally curated collections, or digital exhibits, or explorations (maps, visualizations, networks) of digital items. There are many fascinating ways to engage in DH or Digital Scholarship that don’t take this approach, but I find it really helpful for learning. I have not included links or how to’s in here. Instead, it’s just advice.

Make a play collection (or borrow someone else’s)

  1. Pick a sample topic and/or collection. It’s very helpful if you, personally, find the content interesting. Perhaps choose a collection your library has already digitized. It doesn’t need to be library materials, but that’s handy. It should include digital files (images, texts, videos, whatever) that you would like to explore.
  2. Gather the digital files for each item (this might mean taking photos of them on your phone, or downloading them from the internet, or otherwise getting them)
  3. Make a list of the items to be included in your play collection. A spreadsheet (google doc) will work well for this. It’s ok if you’re working with 10 items at first, or with thousands. In either case, you’ll run into problems that will need solving.
  4. Assign metadata to each item (title, place, time, people, description, etc) so that each row in your list represents a single item, and each column tells you something about that item, with the headers at the top of the columns describing what that column tells you. If the material comes with its own metadata, great. Otherwise, make some up. If you are a librarian, please don’t get too caught up here. You already know a lot about metadata. You’ll have time to come back to this. If there are text documents (books, letters, etc), try to have transcriptions for at least a few. Otherwise, you’ll need to create a collection of texts later when you want to learn other things.
  5. Create a story or argument about your collection. What does it mean? Don’t get too caught up here, either. This is for fun. But it’s worth having written some narrative about this material. Why does it matter? Maybe your narrative only includes 5 items. That’s ok.
  6. Write down some questions raised by your collection What might it mean? What might a person learn from this group of stuff that we don’t know? How might it expose something interesting in the world? Don’t skip this part. Many of these tools are only helpful if you are trying to ask questions. As you get to know the tools, you should also be getting to know your data.

Use your play collection

Curate a collection and make a digital exhibit

Get a Reclaim Hosting account. Try to make a web exhibit in each of the platforms. You will probably be uploading the items one at a time. That’s ok. Just copy and paste from your spreadsheet or list. Try to create a narrative about some aspect of your collection. Play with the ways that narrative changes across each of these. What is easier or harder to do with each tool? (Some of these tools are designed for collections, and some for exhibits. But try doing both things in all of them)

  1. Omeka
  2. Mukurtu
  3. Wordpress
  4. Scalar

Also try visualizing your data

If your spreadsheet has dates, people, places, categories, text, links to images, those things will come in handy here. Many of the platforms below will assume you’re starting with a .csv file. Excel and google sheets will both save a sheet as .csv. It stands for “Comma Separated Values” and is a standard way to share data. As you work with these tools, you may find that you need to fix or change things about your spreadsheet. For example some of them will have the option to let you include urls for image files located on the web. If you used the sites above to upload your files as part of making your collection or exhibit, you might be able to use the URLS for image files that are on the web in the table.

  1. Google Fusion Tables
  2. Palladio
  3. Viewshare
  4. Mapping platforms

Keep working with this dataset as you learn.

This will all be hard at the beginning. But it’s easier to use search engines and online tutorials to get answers for specific issues. For instance, if you’re trying to make a spreadsheet into Google Fusion Tables, or you’re trying to create an exhibit from some items in Omeka, you’ll likely be able to type your error into a search engine and fine someone else’s solution to the same problem. Many people (myself included) will happily help with a simple question on twitter or email, if we are able.

Over time, you’ll want to keep a few copies of your play collection, after you dive into the world of data cleaning (yay!). Once you’ve shown your dataset in a few tools, schedule a workshop to teach other people how to use this dataset in those contexts. Keep clean versions of the data and less clean versions. Keep versions that are geocoded and ones that are less geocoded. And on and on

For further learning

  1. Find other DH syllabi or libguides (if you add “libguides” to your search, there’s a great chance you’ll find a guide to “how to do X digital humanities thing” by another librarian)
  2. for a directory of digital research tools
  3. Codeacademy (HTML, CSS, Javascript)
  4. Programming Historian This is a phenomenal place to learn. Spend time here!!!
  6. Crafting Digital History Workbook by Shawn Graham